Penn State students assess nutritional needs, fill backpacks for children

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A unique course in the Department of Nutritional Sciences recently allowed students to help tackle the issue of hunger in the community while putting into practice the nutrition education they acquired in the classroom.

As part of the coursework in NUTR 456 Community Nutrition taught by Alison Gernand, students participate in a different community nutrition project each semester. The goal is to challenge students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, while also getting experience in the field.

“This semester we had the exciting opportunity to work with the Backpack Program of the Centre County YMCA, which provides backpacks of food for the weekend to children that are on the free/reduced lunch program and low-income families,” said Gernand, Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professor in Global Health and assistant professor of nutritional sciences.

During Gernand’s course, the students assessed the nutrients in the backpack foods and compared them to nutritional needs of school-age children,” Gernand said. “They had very important findings, including that the current foods provided enough iron and protein but were low in other nutrients like fat and fiber. The students then worked to provide key recommendations on how to pick some new foods for the backpacks that would help children meet nutritional guidelines.”

The YMCA of Centre County is currently offering a food backpack program in eight school districts, which include all Centre County schools and some in Clearfield County. More than 1,080 students are registered for the program, which is run out of the Philipsburg-Osceola Area Middle School, said Mel Curtis, director of the YMCA of Centre County.

Each Friday afternoon during the school year, students enrolled in the Backpack Program receive a backpack containing meals and snacks to take home with them for the weekend. On Monday, students return their empty backpack to the school so it can be refilled for the following weekend. Examples of food students receive include: cereal, soup, tuna, spaghetti, crackers, fruits and more.

Backpacks

As part of the coursework in NUTR 456 Community Nutrition, students worked with the Backpack Program of the Centre County YMCA, which provides backpacks of food for the weekend to children that are on the free/reduced lunch program and low-income families. During the course, the students assessed the nutrients in the backpack foods and compared them to nutritional needs of school-age children. School students enrolled in the Backpack Program receive a backpack containing meals and snacks to take home with them for weekend. On Monday, students return their empty backpack to the school so it can be refilled for the following weekend. Examples of food students receive include: cereal, soup, tuna, spaghetti, crackers, fruits and more.

Image: Ilona Ballreich

“The program has been very successful and has received positive input from the school districts we are working with,” Curtis said. “The program provides food for the student over the weekend who may struggle with getting enough food at home. Too many students are struggling to get enough food and they are coming back to school on Monday hungry and complain of headaches and stomach aches which makes learning very difficult.”

Madelyn Falcone, a student majoring in nutritional sciences at Penn State, said assisting with the backpack program provided an eye-opening experience regarding hunger issues in the community and showed her how one person can help resolve those issues.

“I think this project has really taken the interest of the students because it goes far beyond getting a grade for a class and is making a difference in the development of children in our own communities,” Falcone said. “Many of students have expressed great interest in helping the program beyond the guidelines of their project. I am proud to see what the backpack program is able to give to kids in the Philipsburg Osceola Area School District, as well as the other surrounding school districts that were inspired to start this program in their own schools.”

As a graduating senior, working with the Backpack Program has motivated Falcone to participate in public health projects in the future, she said.

“It has exposed me to a realm of nutrition beyond learning the science behind the foods we eat and displayed to me how important it is to be hands on in our communities,” Falcone said. “This experience also hit home as a member of this community and growing up in Happy Valley. This program does so much good for others and I love that people outside of working in public health recognize that and want to help.”

Alexandria Helsel, a junior nutritional sciences major, said Curtis came to talk to her class prior to students supporting the program, which she found educational and helpful.

“I knew there were going to be 100 or more backpacks to fill and that all the people helping out were volunteers,” Helsel said. “Dr. Gernand and Mel talked to us in depth about the program, how it affects children’s lives and how Mel can use Penn State students to improve the program.”

Helsel said throughout the project, she learned a lot, including the nutritional needs of elementary, middle and high school students, and which foods are sufficient in providing key nutrients, like iron, calcium and Vitamin D.

“Beyond the quantitative data that we gathered to learn more about how to improve back packs, I got to experience a more human element to the backpack program,” Helsel said, explaining she stuffed backpacks for Philipsburg-Osceola Middle School on multiple Saturdays throughout the semester.

Helsel said she is thankful for the experience and the opportunity because it has helped her to be more empathetic toward people who aren’t as fortunate. 

“In the past, I never considered that children go home from school to a house void of food in the cupboards or a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter,” she said. “Now I am much more aware that there is hunger everywhere and that hunger doesn’t have a face, an age, a gender or a race. I have so much that I can give to the community to help end hunger. The whole experience has also given me a chance to reflect on my own life and realize how fortunate I am. I consistently make an effort to waste less food. I never want to take the food I have to nourish my body for granted.”

Curtis agrees that many of the students learned valuable life lessons while participating in the program, and gained more of an awareness of the hunger problem once they saw the program in action.

“Most of the children who receive the backpacks will probably never have the opportunity to attend college, let alone have the opportunities that the Penn State students have and will have,” Curtis said. “Hunger has no face and has no territorial limits; it’s everywhere.”

Curtis said through the program, Penn State students also learned how much they can do, even with a small amount of resources.

“Their minds started to look outside the box for what else these children could receive in their backpacks,” he said. “A high number of the students are very passionate about the area work they will be doing in nutrition and what they saw with this program they will be facing daily, so I believe it was a great lesson learned. Any student — high school or college — should have the opportunity to do community service so they can actually see that there are many obstacles out there that people face daily.”

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Last Updated May 05, 2017